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The Story of Gapyear.com

Written by: Tom Griffiths

Life is a journey. It revolves around the decisions you take, the experiences you have on the way and the reflections you make on what you’ve achieved.

Everyone’s gap year is a journey, from the first thought to the final sign off. And that’s why gapyear.com exists. We pick up from the first step, help with the decision, enhance the experience and hope that your reflection is sufficiently positive for you to pass the passion on. A gap year is not an activity. It’s a life path. It’s a decision, an experience and a reflection that we believe will enhance the whole of your journey through life. And it all starts with a first step. Often that first step is a story told by someone who has just come back, an article in a magazine or newspaper, a TV clip, a photo or a postcard.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step Lao Tzu

The first step for everyone is a stirring feeling; that something exciting and positive could happen in their life. The question they ask themselves is, ‘Could I actually make it happen?’ In truth, most don’t. Most talk about it, but never actually do it.

And that’s why gapyear.com was born, way back in 1998. We’re here to help you with that first step. You’re on a journey, one that we understand. It’s an exciting place to be. And we’re with you.

It all started with a photo

The first step for gapyear.com was a photograph – a photo of my brother, aged 18. He was on a boom net, a large rope net they hang off the side of a boat which backpackers cling onto as they get dragged through the water at speed. In the background was Australia. It was 1985. I was 11 and lived in England. I thought ‘I want to do that’ and from that moment on I knew that I would take a gap year and head to Australia when I got older. The excitement of the moment captured me. The deal was finally sealed a few years later when I saw a photo of my cousin’s bungee jump in New Zealand. Her travel stories inspired me and my journey was well underway. For me it was never a question of ‘if’. It was purely matter of ‘when’. I knew I would do this thing and I knew it would change my life. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I headed off around the world aged 18 with a school friend and fulfilled the dream of the boom net and the bungee jump. It was a life changing experience. While at university studying economics I continued to travel; to Siberia, a solo hitch-hiking trip across Canada and down into America and trips into Europe. I financed the travel myself; working in bars, on trucks, picking fruit and busking on the street with the didgeridoos I’d learned to play on my first gap year.

As university drew to a close, more and more friends came asking for advice ahead of travels they planned post-degree. Over beers or coffee I would pass on travel stories and advice as best I could.  It was after one of these sessions that I had a eureka moment; I knew enough to write a book. I’d pull together all the best gap year advice for first time travellers. I’d call it Before You Go. I’d make it simple. I’d work as hard as I could to inspire people to take that first step.

That summer I moved to Plymouth, and when I wasn’t working in a hotel I was busking with the didgeridoo to make extra cash or writing the book. A chance encounter with a hotel guest led to an introduction to a publisher and six months later I was heading back to London with a hand-written manuscript in my day-pack. I taught myself to type on a PC the local university let me borrow, managed to persuade Michael Palin to write me a foreword and the Times to stage the launch. I was 22 when the book was published and 23 when I was named Young Travel Writer of the Year. Life was fun. And then the internet arrived and it got even better.

People start using the site to meet-up

A site is born

In 1998, Peter Pedrick, a talented young IT consultant was getting bored. Ironically (as it turned out), he was considering a gap year. A random phone call from a friend of a friend ended up in a meeting in a coffee shop in London’s Tottenham Court Road. It went on for hours. I was the energetic, passionate travel geek and self-confessed technophobe and Peter, the forward thinking sharp-minded IT geek. Together we created a business plan on the back of napkins. We both understood that people interested in gap years could be subdivided into those interested in going pre, during or after university, mid-career or around retirement. And that, even if I hadn’t had a lot of cash when I set out, the market as a whole, around the world, was worth a lot.

Peter had a vision for the future of the web around ‘niche communities run by everyday experts’. I could talk the hind legs off a donkey and had the energy to inspire, hold and grow the first community. A natural business plan and partnership emerged. Three months later our first site; thegapyear.co.uk was launched. On July 13th 1998, The Gap Year Company Ltd was formed.

The next 18 months were a blur. Thomas Power, the e-commerce guru, described our partnership as ‘the most amazing example of entrepreneurship I’ve ever seen’. We had no cash but carried on working, determined to succeed. We rented an office in Shepherd’s Bush, London and slept on the floor. Most mornings, it was the cleaner who woke us at 7am. We’d usually been working ‘til midnight. We were one of the first social networks. And it was the members and their enthusiasm that often kept us going when things got tough. That year we also launched a free email service (fireball.co.uk), published a second book, The Virgin Travellers Handbook, and funded the pilot of Gap Year magazine for schools and universities.

By the end of 1999 the dot com boom was in full flow and what we were up to began to be noticed. This time, Sir Richard Branson wrote the book foreword. My energy and enthusiasm, he wrote, was ‘infectious’. Just as Facebook did a few years later, we dropped the ‘the’ and became gapyear.co.uk.

We couldn’t carry on with such a small team and brought in Matthew Griffiths, Phil Mochan and Paul Fifield to help build a long-term, global vision and strategy. In 2000, we raised the money for what was now gapyear.com (to cater for the global audience), the development of a new website (a fully fledged social network and advice site) and the launch of Gap Year magazine. Jeremy Green joined as a programmer and ran the site for the next decade. The numbers taking gap years from the UK grew rapidly, inspired in part, I’m sure, by all that was happening at gapyear.com.

From 2001 to 2008, while the online gap year community grew organically, Peter and I worked hard to grow the older and overseas markets. As Peter kept gapyear.com ahead of the curve with technology, I did all I could to spread the gap year message. By 2005, the global gap year market was valued at £5bn. Our advice was sought by businesses, governments and associations around the world. We came up with the gap year bank account (launched by HSBC), the first prepaid cash card for the backpacker travel market, gap year travel insurance and were instrumental in getting the UK government to invest £150 million in various gap year programmes.

Flight Centre

In about 2008, the world woke up to social media. The age of the digital traveller had arrived. The increasing use of the internet during travel, and via mobile phones, created a generation of gappers who were permanently networked. We now understood that gapyear.com was a ‘vertical social network in the travel sector’ (part social network, part travel publisher, part travel agent). Other travel sites had partnered with travel agents and it became clear to me that we should do the same. Above all, I believe, a gap year is about gaining experience through travel. We needed a partner who could help us help gappers achieve all they could in their gap year. That partner needed to be good, global and both online and offline. There was one obvious choice: Flight Centre.

Gapyear.com gets ‘Skroo’ed, in a good way

Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, the Founder of Flight Centre, was a backpacker and pioneer of the independent travel industry. Peter and I loved his passion and determination. It was a good fit. In 2010, gapyear.com became part of the Flight Centre Group

Looking back, the 11-year-old boy from Suffolk seems quite distant. But the excitement he felt as he looked at that picture; the dreams he began to dream, the plans he began to form – these are still the things that lie at the heart of gapyear.com.

To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the gap year journey starts with a single step. We understand that, we share your excitement and at that start point, gapyear.com is there for you.

We love what we do. We believe in what we do. And we believe in your dream, too.

Your journey has begun.

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